A short but intense adventure in Albania, a country with a big heart.
I had just started my adventure in the Balkans when I decided to visit Tirana, a city rich in history and charm and with great potential located in the hinterland of Albania, on the coast overlooking the Adriatic Sea.
It didn't take me long to realise how special this country was.
The welcome and the goodness of the Albanians, in fact, enraptured me immediately.
In today's article, I offer you my experience in Albania, highlighting the welcome and friendliness that characterises this country.
Tirana was the next destination after Meteora, so I arrived in the Albanian capital via a night bus from Kalambaka that reached the destination early the next morning.
Already on board the bus I had the opportunity to experience the kindness of the Albanian people as the latter was made up of eighty percent of them.
Main square of Tirana
The anecdote that has stayed with me the longest is about that citizen of Tirana who was sitting right behind me. We didn't know each other and I had never seen him before in my life but, in his eyes, it seemed we had always been friends.
I remember that after a few minutes he started asking me a thousand questions: where I was from, why I had chosen to visit Albania, how long I would have stayed in those parts...
He was always very smiling and friendly, which didn't reassure me at all given my closed-mindedness at the time.
Murales written of Tirana, capital of Albania
I grew up, like most people who have not travelled much in their lives, with the usual advice “don't trust strangers” and above all I was always told that the world out there is full of cruelty and if someone seems friendly it is because they want to cheat you in some way.
The absurd thing, however, is that these words were always told to me by people who had never set foot outside the Italian borders in their lives, so how could they know?
Moreover, the saddest thing is the stereotype that these people always have towards these people. They just kept saying to me: "who knows if you will come back home, watch out or they will kidnap you, watch your backpack". Everything negative that could be said, they said.
I want to underline it: I have never, ever let myself be convinced by these words but I admit that I had some concerns.
All this, however, made me doubt whether these thoughts were true or absurd and made me even more curious to go and check on the spot how the situation really was.
This is what I replied to the boy on the bus to the question:
I told him that I was not going to be convinced by those words and that I wanted to see for myself what the world was really like.
It hurt me to see the eyes of that boy, visibly shaken by the stereotypes I had been told about their country, Albania, and Balkan countries in general.
I reassured him by telling him that those who said such things had never been able to know if it was true, they were simply saying it because they had been told so.
His sadness at hearing those words calmed me down: maybe he really wanted to be friendly, it wasn't a matter of wanting to screw me over.
Ancient pyramid of Tirana, former museum – now in disuse
On our way to Tirana I fell asleep, at which point I got another taste of their goodness.
We made about five stops on the way and, punctually, I slept through each one.
That boy surprised me once again.
He took care to gently wake me up at every one of them by telling me that if I needed to stretch my legs that would be the right opportunity.
Not only that, each time I opened my eyes he also took the opportunity to tell me that if I needed water, he would share it with me.
Then, as if that wasn't enough, he also gave me a whole packet of delicious chocolate biscuits, telling me that he had enough food.
Despite the recommendation we are told as children “don't take candy from strangers”, in that adventure, I decided to dispel that myth and do exactly the opposite.
I won't hide the fact that, having grown up with that mentality, I was visibly worried but in the end if we keep always trusting other people's words and not listening to ourselves, we will never discover the reality of the facts.
I accepted the packet of biscuits and I can assure you that they did not poison me, in fact they were delicious.
We arrived in Tirana the next morning and, as usual, the boy woke me up (yes, I slept a lot that night, in case you were wondering).
Before saying goodbye, he gave me directions to reach the city and a list of cafes where I could have breakfast.
I thanked him and went on my way, with the constant thought that my entry into Albania could not have been better than that.
Between one indication and another I somehow reached the city centre.
I had no internet connection so, to reach the hostel I had booked, I had to ask for information from passers-by and, by chance, I came across two employees on their lunch break who were visibly relaxed and super smiling. This was the reason that made me approach them.
I simply asked them if they could tell me which direction to go in, but what happened really surprised me.
They swallowed the last bite of the sandwich they were eating, took their office bags and told me: “follow us, we will take you”.
Here another alarm bell arose in my thoughts as I thought back to the stereotypes I had been told, I thought:
Yet I decided, once again, to follow my own thinking and I trusted them.
They were immediately frank and super friendly. They started asking me the usual questions and kept telling me how much fun I would have in Tirana, pointing out how many beautiful girls there were in Albany (they were right).
We walked for two and a half kilometres, they accompanied me to the front door and thanked me for the company. At that point I was convinced: the world is not as they describe it.
Not only had they sacrificed their lunch break to help me find the hostel, they had also thanked me for the company. How can you not start worshipping Albanians at that point?
At the end of my stay in Tirana I arrived at one of the two bus stations where I would wait for the bus that would take me to Shkodra, Albania's fairly touristic attraction.
Here I was very confused as to which of the two stations I should choose and so I asked for help again, this time approaching a man in his forties who was inside a booth at the entrance to a car park, whose job it was to raise and lower the bar for anyone entering and/or leaving.
I took care to wait until he was not busy so as not to disturb him and simply asked him which of the two stations I should choose.
He made a very short call in which he babbled something in albanian, after which he left his station and, too, told me: “come with me, I'll take you”.
I was getting used to their kindness but once again I was surprised at how, for them, the sense of help came before work.
Sculpture symbol of Shkodra's main square
He accompanied me to the station, showed me the appropriate bus and, after a sincere handshake, returned to his workplace and I left for Shkodra.
Shortly after leaving Tirana, on the bus, I wrote this short thought:
Tirana, 12-08-2018, ore 08:07 a.m
“If it's a dream, don't wake me up.
I love Albania, it is a city so full of emotions!
The people then.. The people are wonderful! Everyone is so kind, friendly and helpful as well as super smiling!
I love this city, it has so much to offer and I'm leaving my heart here.
It's amazing how different the world is from how they describe it to you.”
I reached Shkodra in three hours.
Just enough time to make friends with the hostel owners and my new roommates and I went off to explore the city. I decided to move around on foot, as usual.
One of Shkodra's main attractions is undoubtedly Rozafa Castle. An ancient fortress situated on a hill that boasts a spectacular view of the city and the lakes and mountains that invade Albany, so I decided to head in that direction.
So I set off from my hostel, located close to the city centre.
The fortress was about seven kilometres away but I knew that along the way I could have discovered something special.
No sooner said than done.
This time I knew where to go but travelling you learn that any opportunity is good to start a conversation with a stranger and I did so by asking a passer-by for information.
Characteristic mosque – near the centre of Shkodra
We were near a local petrol station and he asked me where I was going, I replied and he gave me a smile. He said: “do you really want to walk to the castle? Come on, get in the car!”
Once again I was stunned. Once again the prejudices I had been told came back to me and I was again very worried.
He noticed it and asked me why I was so tense and I told him honestly: I have never before accepted a lift from a stranger.
He smiled and said: “You have not travelled much in your life, haven't you?”
He immediately understood that this was the reason for my rigidity, which heartened me instantly..
He was an Albanian man who had moved to Italy many years ago but used to spend every summer in Shkodra, his hometown.
I began to tell him how surprised I was to have encountered so much goodness there and he was not surprised at all.
He told me that he knew perfectly well what was being said about them and yet he told me that it had never particularly touched him because in fact, he said, when you come to discover this country with your own eyes you realise that everything you have been told is nothing but lies.
Local greengrocers in Shkodra, Albania
Local weekly market in Shkodra
We made our way through the traffic of Shkodra and, in a matter of minutes, we reached the castle of Rozafa.
I don't know who this man was but he was very well known as he was warmly welcomed on arrival.
We got out of the car and once again he surprised me: he introduced me to all the people in the fortress in a very genuine way and with a toothy smile, he said: “I introduce you Alex, he is Italian and has come to explore our country. He says he loves Albania and its inhabitants for their kindness; be sure not to disappoint him.”
View from the top of Rozafa castle
After exchanging a few words with the fortress managers, he wished me good luck for the rest of the trip, recommended that I keep my eyes open at all times and winked at me as he said: “I paid for your entrance ticket”.
I was truly speechless. This man had known me for twenty minutes and had offered me a lift and paid for the entrance ticket.
I kept repeating to myself how all those things I had been told were possible, all I could find was goodness.
The interior of the castle
I tried to refuse to let him pay for my admission, but it was a matter of principle to him, he said: you are our guest here and my job is to make you feel at home.
I felt such affection at hearing these words and receiving such generosity.
As if that wasn't enough, before he left he even told me that, if I wanted, he would be available to pick me up.
I couldn't accept, he had already done more than he should.
I tried to thank him in every way but the only thing he said to me was: “if you really want to make me happy, tell the Italians how our country really is and how we Albanians really are”.
I nodded and thanked him again.
My short stay in Albania was really intense and full of emotions.
It was one of those places that made me reflect the most, considering the distorted reality I had been told.
I remember leaving the country with an incredible nostalgia.
Albania had really surprised me.
Maybe it was because of my low initial expectations, maybe it was because of the very generous people I met but that country really stuck with me.
I would like to take this opportunity to remind you: don't judge by appearances, find out the facts first hand before giving your opinion.
Listen, but be sure not to be influenced by other people's thoughts.
Inform yourself and always be ready to question your own convictions if you are not sure.
Only in this way will you be able to really find out what the world around you is like and discover, in reality, that it is not that evil place they describe to you.